Category Archives: raising girls

Happy Old Year

I know everyone is saying what a horrible year 2014 was, and we didn’t miss out on all that either. But my friend Heather posted a nice reflection on the past year and it gave me a good opportunity to remember just how many times I have felt ecstatically happy or just thoroughly content in the midst of it all.

I’m posting it here because a) I enjoyed doing it and though you might too, whoever you are, b) my response was way too long to post on my wall, and c) this way I can save it.

Here, give it a try tonight, or tomorrow, or this weekend — there’s no rush. It’s from a blog called Running Hutch, and this is her graphic, not mine.

Year-End-Reflection-by-Running-Hutch

Here’s what I came up with. If you feel like sharing, tell me in the comments, or on Facebook, or on the phone, or whatever.

10 Highlights
1. The whole Listen to Your Mother experience
2. Our Disney one-day marathon
3. Seeing friends in Reno
4. Spending time with extended family in Michigan
5. Seeing Elvis Costello and the visit with our friend Michael
6. An amazing colorful MN fall
7. Some very fun outings with local friends, camping, seeing shows, just chillin (and learning what an appropriate amount of alcohol is after 40)
8. Our SD trip, especially biking the Mickelson trail
9. Going to see the husband’s new band and enjoying having that as part of our lives again
10. Seeing my girls stretch out in a school setting

10 Disappointments
1. Auditioning for a local singing group and being told that I was amazing but not right for the group.
2. Spending a big part of the first few months with an injured finger
3. Getting the flu/pneumonia
4. Visits with my parents falling through due to illness or busyness
5. Not yet adapting to the new school schedule, so that I do more work during the day and have more time to relax with the family at night. (As opposed to being with the kids all day and working at night, as in the past.)
6. Not doing as much biking, camping, and swimming as I’d hoped this summer. Violet’s “summer school” issues and having 2 families with Victoria’s friends on the block move away really made this a bummer summer when we weren’t traveling or having friends.
7. Feeling unable and unsure how to help or make any positive impact on many difficult world events.
8. I didn’t do a lot of the writing that I planned to do.
9. My exercise schemes were constantly being derailed by injury and illness.
10. My time participating in our GT co-op and GT homeschooling group really petered out on a very negative note. This has been a hard one to get over.

3 Game Changers
1. Sending Victoria to school. Just talking about that seemed to open up more thoughts about how we all wanted to spend our days. Much like our first year or two of homeschooling led to lots of thinking about how we choose to spend our time.

2. Stepping down from my last leadership role. I have run something, usually lots of somethings, since stepping out of academia and into the world of motherhood, which is truly one volunteer role after another. This spring when I quit the board of our co-op, that was it – no leadership role in anything. This was terrifying, liberating, and sad for a variety of reasons. I love it and hate it.

3. Starting work with the first brand new client I’ve had in a while (worked with the same old for a long time). It’s a great opportunity to try new things, and also a goad to consider how I see my worklife in its middle third or second half. Funny how you can spend 20 years in a career and then feel like a novice again.

3 Foci
1. Work
2. Homeschooling
3. Procrastinating

3 Things I Forgot
The question is later rephrased as “What are the 3 main areas in your life that you neglected the most?” Based on my disappointments, I think the answers are obvious:

1. My well being
2. Being in charge of my work/writing life, instead of letting it happen to me
3. Saying no

How does this inform my plans for next year:

I am still in a transitional place, seeing about Violet going to school full time next year, thinking about what new kinds of writing work I want to pursue for pay, on the heels of my recent adventures. I also do miss running something. I’ve always liked the excitement of working with others to make interesting things happen, and it’s a good way for me to contribute to my various communities. But I don’t know that I’ve found the place where I want to do that yet. The kids’ schools are an obvious place and yet I feel like I’ve outgrown that kind of organizing.

I’d like to think the first half of 2015 will be about looking at those kinds of questions, while the second half will be about acting on what I’ve learned. It may turn out, however, that the first half of 2015 will be about getting through the end of homeschooling and the second half will be about a second act for me – which is OK.

Through it all, I know better now than I did a year ago that there is no such thing as “no time for exercise,” or for sleep, or for fun. I burned out big time right around my 40th birthday because I ignored these things for so long, and it’s been hard to climb out of the hole. It seems like, for me, right now, it’s never a mistake to prioritize these things over work, homeschool, or anything else.

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Filed under grown up life, Homeschooling, raising girls, writing life

Sister, Sister

Change is coming in our house, but we’ve managed to blithely meander through most of the summer either too busy or too relaxed to think about it. But it crept in a little today.

This is one week when neither kid has a camp, a class, a veritable summer school self imposed by repeatedly ignoring spring deadlines (but I’m not bitter). We aren’t going anywhere, and no one is visiting. Just a week to chill together.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Chill. Like by eating lots of cold stuff packed with sugar.

Excited by the prospect, 11yo Victoria tries to initiate activities with her older sister, but 15yo Violet wants to read, write music, text friends, and draw. Kinda solitary activities.

So Victoria finally says, tentatively, during lunch, “We could role play.”

And Violet says, calling out from her reading position on the couch, “Nah, I think I’m too old for that.”

Those of us still sitting at the table are silenced, and a gloom settles over the cold fried chicken.

We eat without speaking, deep in both nostalgia and clouded projections of the future. I don’t know what Victoria is thinking, but it feels like we’ve all taken a step that we can’t take back. “Role playing”—pretend games, living utterly in a fantasy world for days at a time, whatever you want to call it—was the basic stuff of my kids’ childhood, but especially Violet. There were times at the dinner table when she seemed literally unable to stop, to come back to Earth and be herself, whoever that was. I suspect that from ages 7 to 9 she spoke in a British accent more than half the time.

ABC -- Always Be in Character

ABC — Always Be in Character

If you Google around you’ll see that drama and pretend play are supposed to peak at about 5 years, but I’d say for Violet it was more like 12. I know what’s “normal” because her fantasy realms and invented characters and identities were so real to her I took to books and Dr. Internet to see if there was something wrong.

Though I also remembered that my little sister, possibly into the double digits, wanted to be a bunny when she grew up. Maybe it’s hereditary.

By age 14 it had cooled down, but it had definitely not gone away. Still, it’s a little harder to role play when your friends are 14. And now, it may be done. This seems normal and healthy to me—especially knowing it is all channeled into notebook upon notebook of character sketches and story ideas. And there’s always D & D. I can sigh and move on, but I notice Victoria across the table–nearly under the table–with a dark expression on her face.

We go outside to talk, and she starts to sob in her open, earnest way. Never one to hide her face or swallow tears, she lets her feelings gush forth like a fire hose. I brace for it, and she tells me that she knows that her older sister is only going to keep growing up and away. Three more years and she may be gone. She leans forward in the patio chair and tells me wide-eyed that she’s afraid she’s losing her sister.

One year ago: still not to old to go everywhere in partial costume

One year ago: still not too old to go everywhere in partial costume

I’m stuck. I can only tell her the truth. First, I didn’t grow up living with my siblings every day, so I can’t honestly say I know what she’s going through. But more than that, I can’t tell her she’s wrong. I tell her about adult friends of ours who remain very close to sisters and brothers, I tell her that siblings don’t have to see each other frequently or even talk frequently to stay one of the most important people in each other’s lives. I make the mistake of starting to say that I too feel sad when I think about my girls growing up, but this threatens to transform the mild weepiness I feel watching my girl cry into big, ugly, personal tears. I stop.

Thankfully, I don’t say what is on the tip of my tongue, which is, “You sure gotta lotta nerve, girl.” Victoria is the one leaving us first, after all, to go to school.

Girl with nerve -- Exhibit A

Girl with nerve — Exhibit A

We’ve been homeschooling for nine years. My first homeschooling blog, on homeschool blogger, is so old it’s disappeared. But my 11yo wants to try something new, admittedly in part because the 15yo is growing up and away. Homechool is less of a family venture than it used to be, and more of a solitary pursuit, and that’s a change that hasn’t been sitting well with my socially oriented girl.

We’re all mostly excited for her. To tell the truth, I’m mostly excited for me, too. Mostly, I am looking forward to giving a little TLC to my own work. Mostly, I’m happy to step back from the co-ops and playdates, despite the great people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. And mostly I am not letting myself think too hard about the rest of it: the guilt over not sticking with it (we could always come back!), the worry that middle school is the worst time to dive in to classroom-based education, the suspicion that were she given to a more extraverted family she’d be a natural-born unschooler, the certainty that no public school language arts program could ever satisfy me.

Victoria, on the other hand, is already thinking about planning a dance and having a party for all the new friends she’s going to make. Like I said, she’s sure gotta lotta nerve. Good for her.

Our conversation ends with Victoria taking a deep breath and saying to herself confidently, “I know we’ll always be friends,” before going inside to slice more watermelon. She sighs and moves on, and I try to clear the sadness now shading my face as I follow her, always just a little further behind.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We'll always be together just like this.

Oops, no, sorry. Changed my mind. We’ll always be together just like this.

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I Hold the Mermaid’s Hand

I posted this three years ago on the Red Sea homeschool blog, and it is still true about my birthday girl. It’s also as sappy as ever, so if you hate that, look away. I’m not posting for you anyway — I’m posting it for my little mermaid

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No one believes that this girl can be any trouble. (Pictured here in a photo composed by her sister — I can’t remember the legend being enacted.) She goes off into the world and skips and sings and says wise-sounding things to adults. She is rarely found in the center of a knot of kids in trouble, but kids seem to like her all the same.

Then she comes home. Sometimes with wise-sounding words, but often with furious yells or tears, she tells me she doesn’t belong. No place quite fits right, sometimes even home. Some days something sets her off, some days she rolls out of bed already off kilter.

We went through something a bit similar with Violet at a similar age — “I’m tired of being the only one” she said about why she deliberately faked errors in her schoolwork, before homeschooling.

But with Victoria it runs deeper somehow, and the feelings are so much bigger and more intense. It’s not a school thing, it’s just a being thing, and in some ways it’s always been a part of who she is. There is only so much I can do. I can try to match the right phrase to the right time: “Different is wonderful,” “Different is no big deal,” “Everyone feels different,” “I feel different sometimes, too,” and “Different is hard.” Most of the time I have no idea what to do: she is different, and that is hard for her and for me.

Mostly all I can do is be there. Being there with a dreamer is complicated: you don’t know where she is, and half the time neither does she.

Which is why, God help me, this video clip just hit me right where I am living. It is cheesy, schmaltzy, hokey and — Lords of Irony forgive me — so true right now. So although I am slightly embarrassed, I have to share it for anyone else who has one of these dreamy little girls.

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Something for My Second Child

Just as most photo albums have more photos of the first-born than any other children, I suspect first-borns also get more words devoted to them. They have an unfair advantage–ask any younger sibling. First off, they’ve been alive longer, and usually they’re the ones who make childfree people into parents, which is kind of a big deal.

The next child makes for a transition that is a little harder to document. I’ve heard it said that the first child makes a parent, the second child makes a family. As my mom’s only child, allow me to say that this is crap.

However, going about your rounds with two kids in tow is quite different from being the young, hip couple who totes along an adorable baby in pristine, expensive mini couture wherever they want. The second child comes along and you are older, you’re more tired, and the hand-me-downs that survived are more stained. You enter into what we came to call The Fog of the Second Child, which took us a solid two years to get out of–and only then did we realize we had been in it. This is a time of life to get through, not a series of baby-bookable milestones.

I don’t know if there is a consistent personality profile for second-borns, but ours seemed determined to let us know that four years of parenting her sister were totally inadequate preparation for her:

  • She hated the baby swing and sling that her sister loved, and insisted on being carried at all times, approximately 20 hours a day for the first 9 months. Not held. Carried. In motion. On your feet. No sitting, no stopping.
  • She drove our family out of vegetarianism with a lust for animal flesh that was almost unseemly in a toddler. Whole Foods will be forever grateful, as we tried to assuage our guilt with the most humanely raised, most sustainable–most expensive–meat we could find.
I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

  • She’s outgoing, which probably would have made my husband go in for DNA testing did she not look so much like his entire side of the family. She likes to go places and do things with people. And since she is not yet 16, that means I have to go places and do things with people too.
  • She loves clothes, make-up, and popular culture. My older child rode around listening to NPR for the first 10 years of her life, but little sister has a love affair with the radio stations that play the songs that make you say “Wait, he wants her to touch his what?”
The spa birthday party of a 10yo's dreams

The spa birthday party of a 10yo’s dreams

I could go on, but what I’m realizing as I make this list is that if Victoria threw us into a fog when she was born, she was also instrumental in bringing us, me, out into the world not long after that. She enjoys Tinkerbell, My Little Pony, and Taylor Swift without an ounce of worry about whether they are feminist, edgy, intellectual, or cool. She asks the neighbors about vacations and flowers that I didn’t even know they had. She remembers injuries and asks if they’re better, and she makes get well cards for her friends.

One of the hardest things for me to adapt to was her love of holidays and birthdays, things I can hardly remember, let alone plan for. Her birthday hovers around Mother’s Day each year, and as usual I am unprepared, while she has been making plans for months. She tells me about clothes, decorations, treats, and games, while I try to remind her that last year was a great big party–in celebration of turning double digits–and that we agreed at the time that we wouldn’t be able to repeat something so elaborate next year.

“I can still have streamers, right?” she says, “and maybe balloons?” She asks so little it is almost embarrassing that I sometimes struggle to provide it. But after eleven years she has taken us pretty far.

A few years ago I finally caught on that even the smallest recognition of Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Baby Squirrel Day (don’t ask), Pi Day, or my birthday would be enough to satisfy her, and that has made all the difference. If I don’t think of some small thing I’d like on Mother’s Day, she’ll be distressed no end, so I hold off on buying some fancy shampoo, knowing that a trip to the Aveda shop will indulge her love of cosmetics and perfumes as much as it will relieve her need to do something on a day that I’d be otherwise content to let slide by unnoticed.

I sympathize with my friends who have a hard time on Mother’s Day. Some had horrible, cruel mothers, some had wonderful mothers who died far too young. Some people just don’t like a fuss on any day, especially a fuss with them at the center.

In this house, however, we’ll mark the day at least a little. When I’m sniffing my Shampure and eating my strawberries, I will of course be grateful to my husband and my first born, without whom I would not be a mother. But I will reserve a little extra thankfulness this year for my second, whose love of the wider world is a continual source of surprise for me, and it is very nearly contagious.

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The Real Real World

I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.

Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.

Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.

This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”

I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.

I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.

Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.

Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.

I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.

Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.

Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.

This way to the magic.

This way to the magic.

While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.

Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?

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Welcome to the Foxhole

This New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior was making the rounds on Facebook this week.

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If you can’t bring yourself to read all seven pages, which you should, just know that there is interesting stuff about how stressful the teen years can be for parents. Like, how our perception of the difficulties of our children’s adolescence may have more–a lot more–to do with our own stress than it does with whatever they’re going through. And apparently–surprise!–it’s worse for mothers, and really worse for mothers of daughters. I guess mothers and teen daughters fight a lot.

It’s good food for thought for any parent of teens, though especially trenchant for those of us homeschooling high school. Everything seems to matter so much now: this allegedly radical life choice we’ve made, doubted, defended, and doggedly (deludedly?) stuck with is about to stand trial. Did we really ruin our kids’ chance of getting into college? Did we ruin them, period?

I know lots of parents ask themselves these questions, but there’s an extra sense that you’re facing a moment of truth when you’ve made a non-mainstream choice, whatever it might be. That kind of pressure makes it hard to take that necessary step back and let go. (And if you don’t face that kind of self-doubt as a parent, please, keep it to yourself. Or no, maybe bottle it somehow and make millions.)

When my kids were little, I had a particular piece of parenting wisdom I liked to share with stressed out newbies. I got to use it again last weekend when a friend pointed me to a mom who was new to our local gifted group and who needed a sympathetic ear. It didn’t take long for our conversation to cover the “and then the teacher said . . .” and “who ever thought I’d be telling him not to . . .” and “people think I’m pushing but really I’m just trying to keep up” and all the other touchstones.

It would get boring hearing people recount them, they are so familiar, but then you look over and see that a mom or dad you just met has eyes shining with tears and hands reaching for yours while they say “You get it!”

After that moment of connection, I hate to disappoint, but I think I invariably do. I used to share information about this curriculum, that school, this psychologist, that support group, but my heart isn’t in it anymore. Much of the time that stuff, just like 1-2-3 Magic, and time outs, and chore charts, is busywork for parents. Yet it is necessary busywork for many of us. Which is why my best parenting advice has boiled down to this:

Do whatever feels right to you, because, generally speaking, child-rearing methods and philosophies are things that keep parents busy and preoccupied while kids figure things out on their own.

It was true for potty training, it’s been true for homeschooling, and it sure seems to be the key to keeping it together during the teen years. Find a way of parenting you feel good about, for yourself, and let that carry you along and keep you out of the kid’s way. Just like the sugar pill that cures your headache after a few hours of rest, miraculously, much of the time your brilliant parenting will bear fruit right about the time your kid grows out of whatever she’s going through.

Quoting researcher Laurence Steinberg, the New York mag article put it somewhat more pointedly:

“[A]dolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.”

Ouch! But yes, that too.

My friend (and brilliant advocate for gifted kids and parents) Stacia Taylor said it even more succinctly–and more convivially–when my oldest turned 13 and I was fearing the teen years:

“Welcome to the foxhole. We have wine and chocolate.”

As we navigate my oldest’s last few years of homeschooling–and anticipate my youngest’s arrival as an adolescent–that’s where you’ll find me. Whatever imaginary moments of truth lay out there can pass unnoticed. I’ll keep my head ducked, dodging bullets, keeping busy, covering my eyes when it gets too scary, passing out the libations, in good company. With any luck, whether or not we emerge victorious, we may come out to find young people who were worth not fighting for.

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A Fresh Start

We “started school” this week, which was supposed to mean that we went back to a routine, but as it turned out I had planned a concert, an art museum tour, 2 dentist appointments, and a haircut for this week, in addition to piano lessons, physics one-on-one, the start of play rehearsals for Violet, a teen leadership event, book club, a sleepover, trying to put together the co-op schedule that keeps falling apart, and everyone’s schedule being messed up because the entire state shut down for two days for cold weather.

It might also have helped if I had done some basic things like dug my day planner out of the bag I haven’t opened for 2 weeks and located the next set of math books we were supposed to start. Or, you know, had any sort of plan.

We’ve had a reasonably pleasant week, nevertheless, but it was not the return to routine I was hoping for.

Still, the concert was even better than usual, and the tour was a terrific reintroduction to a modern art museum that may have traumatized Violet as a younger child. (Victoria said, as we drove away, “I think I may need to wait until I’m older to go to that museum again,” but we’ll just forget that part for now. You would never have known it from the way she interacted with the tour guide, in her little-adult way.)

We turned our attention to cleaning for the sleepover while the teen child was at rehearsal. I guess I hadn’t looked in her bedroom for a few days, because this is what I found.

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Irrespective of what photos of my own room might look like were I not expecting a photo session, this set me off on a barrage of angry thoughts, imagining what I would say when she got home, fuming over how I would have to make her clean up in addition to the other tasks she had left until after five hours of rehearsal, aggravated by her inattention to simple things like putting clothes in the laundry basket instead of 3 feet away from the laundry basket, on the floor.

Luckily, though, I couldn’t say any of those things because she wasn’t there. And sure enough, after the adrenaline surge of frustration passed, I felt a lot of sympathy for her. She had several responsibilities to fulfill this week, not much time at home, and it wasn’t about to get better for the next few days. I have been trying a new thing, when feeling like my teen is about to make me insane and say something I regret — I just go over and hug her without saying anything. This works surprisingly well.

So I tried doing the equivalent in her room. It took me about 15 minutes.

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This violates my parenting superego, which tells me that she will never learn to do things for herself if I help her when things are hard. But when I imagine what I would do if I walked into any room — any situation — and found that someone had taken it out of its chaotic state for me specifically so that I wouldn’t have to, I think I would have to sit down and weep with gratitude. I think knowing someone cared enough to notice that I was overwhelmed would change everything, at least for that day.

Maybe it’s not quite the same when you’re 14. But maybe it’s not all that different either.

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